Lessons for the Hospital
Article by Kathryn Butler
Over a year ago, my kids and I visited our friend in the hospital during one of his many emphysema flares. He’d suffered a long, complicated course, bouncing back and forth for months between a rehabilitation center and a hospital, without stabilizing long enough to ever return home. Before long, an oxygen tank was his constant companion, and he could no longer sing the hymns that had once uplifted him in times of trouble.
My kids were accustomed to such visits, and clambered next to our friend to scribble in coloring books while we talked. As they snuggled up beside him, he didn’t chuckle or embrace them as usual. When I asked him his thoughts, his eyes stirred with unease.
“I don’t understand what God is doing,” he finally answered, referring to his worsening illness. Then, in a quavering voice, he said, “I’m scared.”
My friend’s experience wasn’t unusual. Fear preys upon the minds and hearts of all who walk through the sliding doors of a hospital. Some of us careen in on stretchers, fearing for our lives as clinicians flock around us to stem a gush of blood or a haywire heartbeat. Others struggle to quiet our pounding hearts as we await a surgery or a biopsy result. Still more wring our hands in waiting rooms, where we fear the loss of a life interwoven with our own.
Whatever the circumstances, illness can stir up fears we never knew we harbored. Although medication can dull our pain, and therapies can slow cancer in its march, no pat answers can sponge away such fears. The wounds course too deep, and the nightmares linger too long after we’ve awoken from anesthesia.
And yet, we have hope, even in the hospital.
God remains sovereign over all the needles and the pathology reports, the bad prognoses and the statistics. His love and faithfulness are everlasting, unchanging, and wholly independent of the conditions listed in our medical charts. Christ, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), gave his life to save us from the darkest of fears. How do we cling to this truth when anxiety seizes us in the hospital? As one who has walked alongside the sick both as a clinician and as a friend, here are three truths to consider.
First, we can give our fears to God. Turmoil that flutters in the pit of the stomach can prompt us to turn to God in prayer. The Bible doesn’t promise us freedom from tribulation, but it does promise that the Lord will hear when we pray to him (Luke 11:11–13). David sings, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4). Paul guides us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18), and Peter encourages us to cast our anxieties on God, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:6–7).
Praying without ceasing doesn’t mean God will give us what we want. His ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8–9), and God works all things for our good, even in the face of suffering (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28; 2 Corinthians 12:8–9). And yet, when we prayerfully turn our fears over to the Lord, he gilds us in the peace of Christ. As Paul elegantly reminds us in his letter to the Philippians,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6–7)
When you shudder at the blip of a hospital monitor, and wrestle with worries in the sterile night, give your fears to God. In Christ, he will cover you with peace to endure.
Second, we can remember that God is with us. The Psalms beautifully express how God, “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6), delivers us from our fears:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. (Psalm 46:1–3)
During the exodus, God led his people through the wilderness day and night, never departing from them (Exodus 13:22). So also does God remain with us, through the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us. Jesus — our light, our salvation, our stronghold — promises to be with us, not only during the biopsies, and not only in our pain, but “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Finally, we can meditate on all that God promised us. Jesus advised his disciples against anxiety, pointing out that life consists of more than earthly details, that the Father will provide for his own, and that those who follow Christ are heirs to incomparable riches in the kingdom. “If God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!’” he taught during the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 12:28). “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
The Father gives us the kingdom, and thus abolishes our fears, through the redeeming blood of the Son. He embraces us as his own children, drawing us near when nightmares jolt us from repose: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). Our hope is in the Lord (Psalm 121:1–2) and, in Christ, nothing can wrench us from his love (Romans 8:38–39).
This truth — that our light, our stronghold, our refuge and strength dwells with us, and has already saved us — guts the fears that haunt us in the hospital corridors. We have a truth that no prognosis can sully. No pain can dim its light. No disease can diminish its power.Kathryn Butler is a trauma and critical care surgeon turned writer and homeschooling mom. She is author of Between Life and Death: A Gospel-Centered Guide to End-of-Life Medical Care. She lives north of Boston, and writes at Oceans Rise.